One advantage of living in Delhi is the regional bhavans and foreign cultural centres at the plush diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri that throw up great options for foodies. A recent addition to this is the Blue Nile restaurant, which opened this summer at the Ethiopian Cultural Centre.
The restaurant is open to members only, but we get by as we make reservations in advance and express our deep enthusiasm to try out authentic Ethiopian cuisine. Head chef Mulunesh Ayela, a
congenial lady presumably in her forties, warns us that Ethiopian and Indian cuisine share a lot in common. To start with, both taste best when eaten with your hands.
While our hopes to get a slice of exotica are a bit dampened, we decide to make the most of it and order the most quaint sounding dishes on the menu.
Doro wat, we are told, is the national dish and so we make it a point to order it along with injera, a spongy flatbread that works as a roti of sorts. We also go with begg tibs, messir kik, gommen and key sir bedinich selata, feeling quite smug at ordering enough strange names for one meal.
The doro wat arrives first with the injera. It’s basically chicken cooked with onion sauce and Ethiopian chillies, which is milder and more flavourful than its Indian counterpart. The dish gets its distinct flavour from berbere — a reddish, sundried spice mixture that comprises red chillies, cardamom, basil, garlic, ginger, fenugreek and other spices. A nice, round boiled egg sits at the side of dish. We dig in. The chicken is soft and extremely well-cooked, literally falling of the bones and the curry tastes familiar. Injera is like a very sour, thicker version of appam.
Mekdes, the other Ethiopian chef in the restaurant, tells us that the dough for injera is usually made by mixing rice, barley and jowar flour with water and then left to ferment for several days — for up to seven days in winter. The dough is then baked in an electric stove.
Begg tibs is up next. It is finely sliced mutton fried with garlic, onion and fresh chillies. The melt-in-mouth mutton pieces are as soft as they can get and begg tibs is an instant hit. By now, we feel familiar enough with Ethiopian cuisine to turn into food philistines — the injera is a tad too sour so we order some rice to go with the dish. Ethiopians aren’t rice eaters but since Blue Nile also serves Indian food we get our bowl to go with begg tibs. The combination works perfectly.
Key sir bedinich selata, the dish with the longest name on our list, is actually a simple beetroot and potato salad with a little salt, lemon juice and enough bell peppers to make it crunchy and zesty. We discover that gommen is mildly spiced spinach and missir kik is red lentils minus the tadka. We give up on injera altogether and mix the vegetarian fare with rice to turn our Ethiopian adventure into a nice, homely dal-chawal-sabzi affair.
For vegetarians not too fond of garam masala and tadkas, Ethiopian food is a great option.
Mulunesh tells us that Ethiopians usually fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and skip meat so there’s enough emphasis on vegetarian options. They aren’t very big on sweets either, which is why the menu doesn’t have a dessert section. Sweet treats after meals usually include either honey or fruit.
Now, for the best part of the meal — the coffee. We know that Ethiopia is best-known for its coffee and order some for a happy ending. To our surprise, we get a bowl of popcorn instead. The coffee
follows and Mekdes tells us that popcorn always accompanies coffee as a snack. Families and friends bond over coffee, which is usually served in the evenings or after dinner, with popcorn, of course. We find the combination quite unique and the coffee close to divine. Quite unlike what you’d get in India.